2016-10-27 / Columnists

The Peak of the Gilded Age 1890-1912

– PART II
by Sandi Brewster-walker

The peak of the Gilded Age on Long Island found the Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, Whitneys, Morgans and Woolworths building country estates on the North Shore, and summer mansions on the South Shore. The New York Times, Brooklyn Daily Eagle and local newspapers reported on the affluent lifestyles of the rich and famous, as well as those that would sneak off to an Amityville private asylum for treatment.

Young Grace Bonheur Louden’s early life would also be reported in the same newspapers, as she grew up in the shadow of the Long Island Home, Brunswick Home and Louden Hall in Amityville!

In 1894, a cottage was built at Long Island Home that would accommodate seven patients. One year later, another cottage was built and named after Sammis, one of the founders (renamed Hope House).

On July 29, 1896The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Charles M. Smith, a yacht designer was brought in shackles by Long Island Railroad train from Greenport to an “Amityville insane asylum” by James Madison Wells, Frederick Klipp and special officer Evans Thornhill.


Photo above: Long Island Home. Right: Robert Cole, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. Photo above: Long Island Home. Right: Robert Cole, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. For 15 years, James Madison Wells (1842-1918) was the Suffolk County superintendent of the poor. He was born in Aquebogue on the North Folk on Dec. 23, 1863, and married Katherine (Terry) in Aquebogue.

The 1870 US Census enumerated Charles Smith (b. 1870) as a builder with his wife Jane. It can be assumed that he was a ship builder, since Daniel Bishop, a boarder, was listed in the household as a ship carpenter.The article did not describe what had led up to the incident, where Smith was taken to the “Amityville insane asylum,” or which asylum.

As patients came and went at the three institutions, Grace’s (the daughter of William T. Louden) early life continued to make the newspapers! On Nov. 21, 1896, the South Side Signal newspaper reported on her 12th birthday party, which 75 children attended in the new ballroom of Louden Hall asylum.

One year later, on May 8, the South Side Signal mentioned Grace was given a “baroness” wheel bicycle purchased at King Bros. store by her grandfather John Louden. Grace’s new bicycle gave her mobility, and safety.The new style of bicycles symbolized the “new woman,” the feminists and suffragists.

Around 1900, another Long Island Home cottage was built named Stanton Cottage (later the Sage House) for the treatment of just one patient.The following year, Maurice Barrymore (born Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe in 1849), the actor, would arrive at the Long Island Home for the Insane. Barrymore had been married twice,first to Georgie Drew, who died in 1894, and soon after to Mary Floyd. All the regional newspapers carried the story!

The New York Times issue March 25, 1905 reported that during Barrymore’s March 28, 1901 vaudeville performance at Harlem’s Lion Palace Theatre in New York, he begun “such an emotional pitch that tears rolled down his face” followed by “erratic behavior”.The next day he got so violent that his family got a court order to commit him to a Bellevue Hospital insane ward. It is said, John, his son got him to the hospital “under the pretense of starring in a new play.”

Having been a trained boxer, Maurice was still strong, and tried strangling Ethel, his daughter, on her visit according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper also dated March 25. He was found to have paresis from an untreated syphilis infection resulting in progressive dementia. Bellevue doctors said, Maurice “was hopelessly insane.” Ethel would pay his expenses and have him admitted to the private Long Island Home in Amityville, where he remained until his death in 1905.

During 1909, progress at Long Island Home continued with 30 acres of land west of the main building, consisting of a wooded grove area with a brook running on the north and west boundaries was purchased. A stately three-story brick cottage with columns was built “for women only” named Norton Cottage after board member Washington Norton.

Sept. 4 came and the nearby Louden Hall lawn was used for a “socially and financially” successful afternoon tea.The committee consisted of Mrs. William Louden, Mrs. John Louden, Jr. and Mrs. William Tobias assisted by Mrs. Charles Duryea, Mrs. William Bixble, Mrs. Henry Drew, Mrs. John Louden, Sr., Mrs. George Thompson, Mrs. Esther Knapp and Grace Louden.The tea raised $58 to benefit the St. Mary’s Parish Building Fund according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper.

Among the many other entertainers that passed through the doors of the three hospitals was Bob Cole (1868-1911), a famous man of color and vaudeville entertainer, composer, arranger and comedian. By 1899, Cole was an arranger with two other men of color, John Rosamond Johnson, a composer, and his brother James Weldon Johnson, a lyricist.

In the fall of 1910, Cole was performing at Keith’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, when he had a mental breakdown on stage, and was taken to the Manhattan State Hospital (formerly New York City Asylum) on Ward’s Island. The breakdown was caused by “financial hardship, the strenuous schedule and numerous setbacks.”

By 1911, the Amityville asylums were being called sanitariums, and had become very popular among entertainers and the rich.

On July 6, the New York Age reported that Bob Cole, who had been an inmate of the Manhattan Hospital on Ward’s Island for mental trouble, would be leaving for a private sanitarium in Amityville. Which sanitarium of the three has not been determined, but it is believed to be the Long Island Home!

After a short stay, local Amityville physicians advised him that his condition would allow him to go to the Catskills for relaxation. Cole planned on staying at a Catskill boarding house for a few months, but Cole’s life ended on Aug. 2, 1911. He committed suicide by walking into a creek in the Catskills, and drowned.

On Aug. 10, 1911, an article in the New York Age newspaper in reviewing Bob Cole’s life, reported that there was trouble “…between managers and colored performers”; Cole had been one of the leaders. It had been Cole’s performance as a tramp at the Grand Opera House and Casino that “brought him to fame.”

The Amityville sanitariums were rest homes for the rich mentally ill with care and treatment consisting of relaxation, fresh air, good food and activities included dances, socials, tennis, sailing, bicycling and duck hunting—very similar to the activities of the resorts along the Great South Bay.

Grace Bonheur Louden probably was a witness to history with the coming and goings of Ethel, Lionel and John Barrymore, as well as John Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson visits on Division Street (Louden Avenue).

Lionel became a stage, screen and radio actor, as well as a film director. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor in “Free Soul” in 1931; however he is best known for his performances in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and a ”Christmas Carol.”

Ethel was a stage actress, who became known as the “First Lady of the American Theatre.” And John, who was 23 years old when their father died, is said to have suffered from alcoholic abuse at the age of 14. At first, he avoided acting, but later did have a short career in stage, silent movies and radio. If or how many times the Barrymore family visited Maurice in Amityville has not been found!

After the loss of Bob Cole, his partners John Rosamond Johnson in 1912 formed another vaudeville act, and toured Europe until 1914. Returning to the States, he served as musical director of the New York’s Music School Settlement for Colored founded by the New York Symphony Orchestra until 1919.

His brother James Weldon Johnson would publish his first book, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” and become famous during the Harlem Renaissance.

James composed the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and John, the music originally written for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and known now as the “Negro National Anthem.”The Johnson brothers were close to Bob Cole, so it can be assumed they visited their friend Bob Cole in Amityville!

In 1912, the Long Island Home purchased more property near the main building, which included a large home, two barns and several outbuildings. A year later, the Louden family added Knickerbocker Hall to their sanitarium.

The writer is an independent historian, genealogist, freelance writer and business owner. She is the chair of the Board of Trustees and acting executive director of the Indigenous People Museum & Research Institute and served in President Bill Clinton’s Administration as deputy director of the Office of Communications at the United States Department of Agriculture. Readers can reach her in c/o the Amityville Record at acjnews@rcn.com.

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